Splendour (Maltings Arts Theatre, 23rd March 2017)
Abi Morgan's Splendour is an incredibly relevant character study, offering fragments of four women's life up to the lens of scrutiny: by the audience and each other. Four very different women - the wife of an unnamed dictator whom rules a war-torn country under a seemingly cruel regime, her best friend, a photojournalist (who has come to take said dictator's photograph) and an interpreter. Each affected by the nameless war-torn country in different ways.
The audience surround a grand reception room, which is edged with what appears to be shattered ice, the freezing atmosphere outside permeating the palatial mansion. The sharp edging is also reminiscent of shattered glass - much like the shattered Venetian vase that the play's form centres upon. The play returns repeatedly to this incident, replaying the scene with more immediacy and truth revealed each time. With each shatter, a fragment more of each women's story is revealed. Outside, the nameless city is rioting, a coup underway to overthrow the dictator. Inside, a western photojournalist waits for his arrival, entertained by his poised wife whose mind is clearly elsewhere. The sharp edges of the stage infringe the wife's luxurious home, much like the aggression building outside in the city. Her denial and self-preservation is remarkable, her demeanour only warming when discussing her partner in crime.
Interestingly, I feel Director Jane Dodd may have quite a different opinion on Michelaine, the dictator's wife. In the programme's notes, she writes "How does she cope with the cruelty of her husband's regime, particularly when it impinges on the most vulnerable, even her own daughter and grandchild?". To me, this implies sympathy for Michelaine for her guilt by association. I however didn't see her as a woman who was 'coping' through self-denial, as her narcissistic obsession with her legacy is revealed. Tellingly, she does not break down when she realizes her daughter and grandchild have been caught in the coup. Her facade remains in tact, her poised demeanor returning within seconds. When it is revealed her husband has abandoned her however, leaving her to suffer at the hands of the cities rebellion, she lets out a wail of grief. Her pain is selfish.
Her youthful memories of her husband (referenced in the publicity image of bloody snow prints) make her power and manipulation apparent. When she first met her future husband at 17, she would sneak out of her house to see him by following in his footprints in the snow, so that 'no-one would know' she had been with him. She first realizes she is in love with him when he is trailing behind her, stepping in her snow prints as she bounds ahead. By following his footsteps and condoning the cruel regime he has led, she has been blamed by association. However, her complete control over her emotions reveal that she in all likeliness is as powerful as he, just in a carefully manipulative way. Just as their ability to hide in each others footprints suggests, she uses his power to her advantage, surrounding herself with luxurious shoes and handbags to distract any guilt she may feel - particularly in relation to the awful acts she has inflicted upon her 'very best friend'. They retreat into frivolous chitchat to mask any animosity that surfaces - however when her friend finally snaps, I wanted her slap to be as shocking as the vase smashing, however it . Her self-composure is evident until the very end, demanding her portrait to be taken as the rebels finally attack her grand home. Her commands of "Shoot! Shoot!" echo more than just her demands to be photographed poignantly in death, but also a demand to be murdered on her own terms, and an aggressive reminder of the ordered death of her best friend's husband.
Kat Rogers was mesmerizing within this role - a proud and dignified stance, streaked with a discreet nervous shake, the perfect portrayal of a woman teetering on the edge as the carefully built structure of power comes crumbling down around her. Jill Priest Stevens was a powerhouse unto her own, in the role of best friend. A role which could have been swallowed up into the typical 'submissive female who snaps' stereotype, but instead she thwarts expectations and creates a devastatingly complex portrayal of motherhood, and friendship.
Through four different lens, we are challenged to question how desperate the situation must be in which you choose self-preservation over morals. Local theatre at its very best in another outstanding performance by OVO - an incredibly well-written play that challenges what it is to be a mother, a friend, a woman, a human being.